David Calcutt: Inferno

The lad sat on the wall top, legs dangling down. Sallow face, thin mouth, close-cropped stubble of hair. His world crudely made, his mind given to violence. Frost sparkled on the shards of glass set into the concrete on either side of him. He raised his head to the clear, midwinter sky. There was a quarter moon. He spoke aloud.

“It’s just a lump of rock.” Then, louder, listening to his voice in the silence. “There ain’t nothing there. Nothing.”

He laughed and pulled the hood over his head. Then, pressing his palms into the wall, he pushed himself off and dropped down into the yard.

He landed awkwardly with a burst of profanity and then he was bent over and stamping up and down on the frost-hard ground and clutching his left hand with his right, filling the night with his cursing. After a while he stopped. There was dark blood oozing out between his fingers and he lifted his right hand away and wiped it on his trousers and looked at his injured left hand. There was a straight gash running from just above the wrist to below the little finger. He swore again through teeth clamped tight against the pain and he squeezed his hand into a fist and the blood came out even faster. He looked up towards the wall and cried out.

“What they put glass there for?” Then swung round to face the yard. “What you doing putting glass there? There ain’t nothing worth keeping anybody out for!”

There was a steady flow of blood from his hand which ran down his wrist and dripped thickly onto the ground. He unzipped his coat and shrugged it off then worked his tee shirt over his head and held it between his teeth, standing with pale and naked torso exposed to the freezing night. Gripping one end of the tee-shirt with his right hand he worried it with his teeth until it tore, then stood panting with the torn tee shirt hanging down and shook his left hand to clear it of blood. He gasped, swore, and dropped the tee-shirt.  He swore again, then picked up the tee-shirt and put it once more between his teeth and pulled and worried at it until it was ripped almost in two pieces. Taking the bloodstained, flimsy rag in his right hand he wrapped it several times around his wounded hand and pulled it tight and secured it so that it wouldn’t come loose. Then he picked up his coat and put it back on and zipped it up and pulled the hood back over his head. He closed his eyes and stood, aching with cold and pain, and waiting until his legs had stopped shaking and he was steady again on his feet.

He opened his eyes and blinked a few times to clear them and looked at where he was. It was a large yard filled with scrap, some in small heaps, some in large tottering piles. Metal and plastic. Cookers, bathtubs, fridges, bikeframes. Hubcaps and prams. A steel cabinet with no drawers. A rusty garage door. Computer consoles, an ancient telephone. Twisted sheets of metal no one could put a name or use to. The broken town’s broken castoffs. All stood before him as if carved from ice.

He caught sight of a length of metal tubing lying on the floor near one of the heaps, and went across to it and picked it up. Some kind of rusty iron pipe. He tested its weight in his hand, then swung it through the air a few times and grinned. Armed, he went in among the piles of junk, looking for something else, he didn’t know what. He hadn’t gone far when he smelled smoke. He stopped, turning his head this way and that, then went in further, sniffing the air, following the thread that itched in his nostrils.

Before long he became lost among the piles of junk which seemed to be packed closer together and to tower higher above him so that he felt increasingly penned in, almost as if he was in some kind of trap and he held the iron pipe aloft in his fist. His hand throbbed mercilessly and his head swam and strange thoughts crept into his mind. He spat out a string of vicious and obscene curses at everyone and everything he could think of and this made him feel better. He went on deeper into the junk, then came suddenly to an open space between the heaps and saw the fire.

It was burning in a large metal bin with holes punched in the sides. He could see the glow of the fire through the holes and the flames licking out of the top. It was burning fiercely as if it had only recently been lit but there was nobody around. Nobody that he could see, anyway. He went a few steps towards the fire then stopped and pulled a face. Whatever was being burned in the bin gave the smoke a thick, unpleasant smell that made his eyes sting and caught him with its bitterness in the back of his throat. He wiped his eyes with his right hand, which still held the iron pipe, and walked up to the fire. The flames burned with a deep red light and there were little golden threads that wriggled like living creatures among the flames. It was good to feel the heat on his face, and he bent to lay the iron pipe on the ground then stood again with his face over the top of the bin.

The flames writhed and flickered and he felt himself drawn to them in such a way that he even forgot about his injured hand, and as the heat poured upward over his face he closed his eyes.

He was awoken by a low, growling voice speaking close to his ear.

“What you doing?”

He let out a cry and jumped back away from the bin to confront the figure that stood in front of him. It was an old man, shorter than he was but a lot stockier, wearing a thick, ragged overcoat and a shapeless hat squashed down on top of his head. The face, lit dimly by the glow from the fire, was bearded, and the skin where it showed through the beard was streaked with filth. There was something that gave the face a strange, unnatural look, but as the man was standing partly in shadow, and the hat pulled down low, he could not properly see what it was.

“Well?” the old man growled again.

“Well what?” he said.

“What you doing here?”

He lad straightened up.

“What’s it look like I’m doing?”

“It looks like you’re warming yourself by my fire.”

“I didn’t know it was your fire.”

“You knew it was somebody’s.  Fires don’t go lighting theirselves.”

The lad shrugged. “I was only trying to get warm.”

The old man looked at him and said nothing. Then he turned and put out his hands over the flames, his blackened, stumpy fingers sticking out through the shredded remains of a pair of woollen gloves.

“Well,” he said at last, “it is a chilly night.” He was staring down into the fire as if returning to some deep train of thought and it was beginning to seem to the lad that the old had forgotten all about him, when suddenly, though still keeping his gaze fixed into the flames, he spoke again. “You better come over, then, if you want to get warm.”

The lad stepped up to the bin and as he did kicked against the iron pipe. It rolled on the concrete floor with a dull clinking sound and the old man looked down at it.

“What’s that?”

The lad too looked down at the pipe, then up again.

“It looks like some kind of metal pipe.”

“How did it get there?”

“I don’t know.”

“You didn’t bring it in here, did you?”

“No,” said the lad. “I never seen it before.”

He looked down into the fire. He could feel the old man staring at him. He put his right hand over the flames and kept his left hand down by his side. He shivered, then shivered again, and couldn’t stop.

“Cold are you?” said the old man.

“I am.”

“You need something warm to wear, this weather. It’s clothes that keep the cold out. Like this coat of mine. It keeps me good and warm, this coat.”

The lad looked at the old man’s coat. He wanted the shivering to stop.

“It’s a good coat.”

“It’s seen better days.”  The old man ran one hand down the front of his coat, touching with his gnawed and stubby fingertips its loose, cracked buttons, its pulled threads. “Had some wear and tear, it has, all right. But it still does the job.”

The lad felt his own clothes flimsy and thin against his bare flesh.

“I wish I had a coat like that.”

“I bet you do.”

“I could do with a coat like that.”

“You could. Specially on a night like this. Shame you ain’t got one.”

He was looking at the old man’s coat.

“Maybe I’ll get myself one.”

“Maybe you will.”

He glanced up to see the old man’s face staring straight into his, and now he could see clearly what was strange about it. The entire left side seemed to have been pulled and twisted out of shape and the area around where the eye should have been was puckered and squashed and lashed with deep red welts. There was no eye visible there at all. The old man pushed his face even closer.

“It’s a beauty, ain’t it?  Go on, have a good look.” He turned the damaged side of his face towards the lad and when he grinned it twisted his face even more. “You look at it and remember it. ‘Cos one way or another we all have to pay for what we’ve done.”

He shook his head. “What?”

The old man gave a contemptuous, snorting laugh and turned back to the fire. “You’ll find out when your time comes.”

The lad became aware of the pain in his hand again, a burning weight dragging at the end of his wrist. “I ain’t got to pay for nothing that I’ve done,” he said.

“Ain’t you?” said the old man. “So what they after you for?”

“Who?”

“Them who are after you.”

“There ain’t nobody after me.”

“They’re always after somebody out there.”

“Well they ain’t after me.”

“What they do that to your hand for, then?”

The lad thought that he had managed to keep the injured hand hidden from the old man. “Nobody did anything to my hand.  I did it myself.”

“What for?”

“I didn’t do it for anything.” He looked down at the hand. Wrapped in the bloodsoaked tee-shirt it felt twice its normal size, and as if it wasn’t his hand at all, but some kind of creature that had attached itself to him and was slowly eating its way up his arm. “It was an accident. I cut it on some glass when I come over the wall.”

The old man’s face suddenly loomed close, distorted, grotesque.

“You shouldn’t have come over the wall, then.”

The lad’s whole left arm felt as if it was on fire, his eyes swam, the face was bobbing up and down in front of his like some horrible mask, and he wanted to smash it, smash the thing that was looking at him through the mask, but when he lifted his right hand and tried to clench it into a fist the fingers wouldn’t close and his arm when he swung it round flapped emptily, and at the same time his knees buckled and he fell forward against the old man. Then he was being held and lowered to the ground, and something was happening to his left hand. He looked down at it and saw it lying there, raw and swollen and bloody, and at the same time heard the old man’s voice coming from far away then close up.

“That’s nasty. Could go bad. You don’t want it going bad. We’ll have to do something about it.”

Then the old man was lifting his hand and the lad didn’t know how he had the strength to because it was so heavy, but he was lifting and taking it somewhere and when he saw where he was taking it it was too late because even as he tried to pull it back it was already there pressed against the side of the bin and his hand burst into flame and the flame poured through his body with a long searing scream that he could hear for a long time after he was unconscious.

 

He came to in the bright light of early morning. The sun hurt his eyes and his hand hurt. He was covered by the old man’s coat. He drew his hand out of the coat and looked at it. All along its side it was burned and blackened but the wound was dry. He tried clenching his fingers but the scab began to crack so he stopped. He pushed himself to a sitting position, testing the weight on his left hand and it was all right. Then he stood and stamped his feet and looked around. The fire was out, just a glow of warm ash in the bottom of the bin. He couldn’t see the old man. He bent stiffly and picked up the old man’s coat and put it on. He picked up the iron pipe. It was covered in frost and the icy cold of it burned his palm. He looked around once more then pulled up his hood and went in amongst the piles of junk.

By daylight it didn’t take him long to find his way back to the place where he had first jumped into the yard and the old man was there, as if waiting for him. He grinned crookedly at the lad.

“You’re up and about, then.”

“Looks like it,” he said.

“Leaving, are you?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s your hand?”

“It’s okay.”

“Good job I did that. You wouldn’t want to lose your hand. You need both hands out there.” Then the old man came a few steps closer to him. “My coat keep you warm, did it?”

“I suppose so,” he said. “I didn’t know much about it.”

“It’s a bit big for you.,” said the old man.

“It’ll do,” he said.

They stood facing each other, then the old man raised his hand towards him.

“I’ll take it back, now.”

“I think I’ll keep it,” he said.

The old man nodded and smiled as if this was what he had expected. He took off his hat so that the whole damaged side of his face was revealed with shocking clarity in the morning light and the lad grimaced at the sight of it. Then, placing his hat carefully on the ground beside him, the old man lowered his head and ran forward. The lad stood rooted in surprise for a moment, but, as the old man drew near, sidestepped to his blind side and swung the iron pipe hard and heavy against his head. He felt it hit and the old man dropped without a sound and lay still. He struck down again and there was a crack and he stepped back sharply to watch the dark blood pooling out around the old man’s head. The old man was lying on his side and he pushed him over with his foot so that he was facing upwards.  He crouched down beside him and spoke to the one eye staring up cold and empty.

“I got your coat, old man, and I’m keeping it. Now I’ll be warm forever and you’ll be dead.”

He stood and walked across to the old man’s hat lying on the ground and picked it up and put it in on. Then he walked to the wall, took a breath, and jumped up, scrambling and pulling and kicking against the brickwork and hauled himself up to sit on the top. He gripped his left hand with his right and clenched his teeth against the pain and looked out. Ahead lay the broken streets, the derelict houses, lit as if on fire by the early risen sun flashing from the ice and frost. There was flame and there was shadow and a frozen nothingness beneath, and he squinted against the glare and dropped down into it.

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Me

David Calcutt is a playwright, poet and novelist from Walsall in the West Midlands. He has written for BBC radio, touring and community theatre. He has three novels for young people published by Oxford University Press, and one for Barefoot Books, and two pamphlets of poetry published by Fair Acre Press. His one man play, “The Life and Times of the Tat Man”, has been on tour since April 2014.

black tree

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